Farmers managing underground forests to re-vegetate their lands

By Wambui Kamiru

Gliricidia interrcropped with maize

In Ethiopia and Malawi farmers are creating canopies of trees from natural regeneration that provide cover for crops growing beneath them, nutrients for the crops, fodder for animals, firewood and other indirect benefits like carbon sequestration.

Over 100 million nitrogen-fixing ‘fertilizer trees’ will be planted on Ethiopian farms, according to an announcement made by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in December 2011.

What does Meles Zenawi want with 100 million trees? For starters the tree that he selected, Faidherbia albida, fixes nitrogen into the soil, making the soils more fertile. In addition, the tree cycle consists of a phenomenon called reverse phenology.

According to Dr. Dennis Garrity, Distinguished Board Research Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre through Evergreen Agriculture a fresh, new, low cost approach to increasing food production has taken root in Africa.

Ethiopia’s farmers will be practising agroforestry, that is, growing trees on farms; specifically a type called Evergreen Agriculture. There are three major types of Evergreen Agriculture. The first is farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) on cropland, conservation agriculture with trees (CAWT) and finally conventional agriculture interplanted with trees.

Last week at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, key stakeholders came together to discuss, plan and make actionable lessons learned from farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) in Niger. Participants comprised farmers, scientists, donors and policymakers. The conversation was generated during a joint conference on #BeatingFamine in the lowland drought-prone areas of Africa organized by World Vision and the World Agroforesty Centre.

Granted that FMNR in the long form is quite a mouthful, it defines a rather interesting and simple technique being used in Niger to recover devastated landscapes. It involves, according to Tony Rinaudo, the FMNR Advisor at World Vision Australia, “reforestation without planting trees.”

How is that possible?

FMNR in Niger involves leaving “underground forests,” the roots of cut down trees, to grow. Then the ones with the straightest stumps are selected and pruned accordingly. Once these stumps are protected, nature takes over and out of what seems a desert, an agroforest parkland can grow – as is the case in Niger, where over 450,000 square hectares have been revived.

FMNR, a type of Evergreen Agriculture is however, not a new way of farming. This practice, which involves the use of indigenous trees, respecting the ideal of the “right tree at the right time in the right place” is part of traditional African farming methods.

Throughout the conference, scientists provided data and analyses that could assist in formulation of policies and used to source for funding from governments and donors, in order to support farmers and improve their livelihoods. There were examples of science supporting practices that farmers traditionally used and that were adapted to the specific conditions of their environment and ecosystem.

Evergreen Agriculture is enjoying success in both Ethiopia and Malawi where farmers are planting their crops under a canopy of trees that provide cover, nutrients, fodder for animals, firewood and other indirect benefits like carbon sequestration.

In his presentation, in the first session of the conference, Garrity emphasized the impact that trees on farms are having in transforming lives and landscapes across Africa.

In Kenya alone, trees on farm account for the growing percentage of tree cover in the country with initial estimates pointing to a growth from 1.7% to over 5% tree cover.

In Ngitili, Tanzania 500,000 hectares of land in 934 villages has been regreened through FMNR and Evergreen Agriculture.

It is not the Faidherbia albida tree alone that promises hope for subsistence farmers who contribute over 90% of Africa’s agricultural production. There are other trees that can be selected based on the needs of the farmer.

Trees that provide cash or nutritional benefits include those for timber such as Grevillea robusta which is commonly found in Central Kenya, trees for oil, like the Shea butternut tree in Tanzania and trees that produce nutritious fruits like Uapaca kirkiana.

Trees also provide indirect benefits and these include, fertilizer trees like Faidherbia albida and Gliricidia sepium. Where livestock is kept on farms, trees can also provide fodder and increase milk production, as in the case of Calliandra calothyrsus.

In Africa, out of a total of 54 countries, 17 are engaged in Evergreen Agriculture and this is the majority of lowland drought-prone areas on the continent.

In closing his presentation, Dennis pointed towards the future of revolution and practice of agriculture on the continent. In calling for collaboration, Dennis suggested the creation of an Evergreen Agriculture Network which would comprise farmers, scientists, donors and policymakers. The network would accelerate the widespread adoption of low cost land regeneration practices such as those mentioned above.

Useful resources

Related blog article – The baffling simplicity of FMNR

CLICK HERE to visit the World Agroforestry Centre Database for information on the management and use of a wide range of tree species which can be used in agroforestry

Paper on Evergreen Agriculture: a robust approach to sustainable foodsecurity in Africa

Watch Photo slide on Evergreen Agriculture'

Yvonne Otieno

Yvonne works as Communications Officer at the World Agroforestry Centre. She has 11 years’ experience in communication, writing, editing, and media management and is a social media enthusiast. Yvonne has a Diploma in Broadcast Journalism from the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication and a Degree in Journalism and Media Studies (Development Communication) from the University of Nairobi, and is an active member of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK). She is currently undertaking a Masters in Development Communication

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